July 25, 1946. In Walton County, Georgia, a mob of white men commit one of the most heinous racial crimes in America's history: the shotgun murder of four black sharecroppers -- two men and two women -- at Moore's Ford Bridge. Fire in a Canebrake, the term locals used to describe the sound of the fatal gunshots, is the story of our nation's last mass lynching on record. More than a half century later, the lynchers' identities still remain unknown. Drawing from interviews, archival sources, and uncensored FBI reports, acclaimed journalist and author Laura Wexler takes readers deep into the heart of Walton County, bringing to life the characters who inhabited that infamous landscape -- from sheriffs to white supremacists to the victims themselves -- including a white man who claims to have been a secret witness to the crime. By turns a powerful historical document, a murder mystery, and a cautionary tale, Fire in a Canebrake ignites a powerful contemplation on race, humanity, history, and the epic struggle for truth.
I don't want any trouble," said the white man, Barnette Hester. He stood on one side of the dirt road, and his two black tenants, Roger and Dorothy Malcom, stood on the other side. They were shouting and cursing, their voices echoing through the Sunday-evening quiet. The noise had reached Barnette Hester in the barn. He'd stopped in the middle of milking, run out to the road, and issued his warning.
At twenty-nine, Barnette Hester was tall and thin, so thin he appeared boyish, as though his body hadn't yet filled out. His three older brothers were broad-shouldered men who spoke in booming voices, but he, the youngest, was shy to the point of silence -- except on Saturday nights, when he drank liquor and talked and laughed a little. He'd been born in the modest house across the road. When the other men his age went off to the war, he stayed home to help his parents, and his father made him overseer of the family farm. They owned one hundred acres: a few behind the house, and the rest beyond the barn. That afternoon, after returning from church, Barnette had walked through the rows of cotton and corn and reached the same conclusion as many of Walton County's farmers: it was the beginning of lay-by time. The crops were nearly full grown, and fieldwork would be light for the next month or so, until the harvest.
When it was harvesttime, Barnette would work in the fields from sunup to sundown, snatching the cotton from the bolls and stuffing it into burlap croker sacks. And Roger and Dorothy Malcom would work alongside him. As children, Barnette and Roger had been playmates. But in January, when Roger and Dorothy moved onto the Hester farm, they'd become Barnette's tenants. Once, earlier in the spring, he'd found them fighting in the road in front of his family's house and told them to go home -- and they'd obeyed. They'd walked to the fork in the road, taken the path down a small hill, and disappeared inside their tenant house. Barnette issued the same warning this evening, and he expected the same reaction.
Instead, across the road Roger Malcom charged at Dorothy. She dodged him, then ran down the road, into the front yard of the Hesters' house. As she passed, Barnette heard her say, "Roger's gonna kill me."
Roger went after Dorothy. He followed her into the Hesters' yard, and to the big fig tree, where he lunged at her again. Just then, Barnette's wife, Margaret, stepped out the front door of the house onto the porch. She watched Roger and Dorothy in the yard for a moment. Then she looked up and called to Barnette, "He's got a knife, and he's going to cut her."
Barnette crossed the road and entered the front yard. When he neared the fig tree, Dorothy darted onto the porch and she and Margaret rushed inside, leaving only Barnette's seventy-year-old father on the porch. Roger started up the porch stairs, and Barnette hurried to catch up with him. He stepped close, smelling the liquor on Roger's breath. He put his hand on Roger's arm and tried to turn him back toward the road. "Get out of the yard," Barnette said. And then, for the second time: "I don't want any trouble."
Roger Malcom shrugged off Barnette's hand and hunched over. Then he spun around and charged, his arm outstretched.
The blade of the pocketknife entered the left side of Barnette's chest, just below his heart.
After Roger Malcom pulled out his knife, he threw his hat on the ground. From the porch, Barnette's father heard him say, "Call me Mister Roger Malcom after this." Then he ran away.
When Barnette clutched his side and began stumbling toward the house, his father, Bob, assumed Roger Malcom had hit him hard in the stomach. Neither he, nor anyone else in the Hester family, realized that Roger Malcom had cut Barnette -- not until Barnette collapsed onto the porch. Then Margaret saw the blood and cried out, "Take my husband to the hospital. He's bleeding to death."
With the help of Barnette's eldest brother, who was visiting from next door, Bob Hester carried Barnette out to the car and laid him across the backseat. Pulling out of the driveway, they turned toward the hospital, located nine miles away in the Walton County seat of Monroe.
By then, the white people who lived near the Hesters had heard the commotion. These neighbors -- whose surnames were Peters, Adcock, Malcom, and also Hester -- were related to Barnette's family and each other by blood or marriage, or both. Their ancestors had claimed farms in this section of the county during the land lottery of 1820, and they'd set their modest frame houses close to each other and to the road, preserving every inch of dirt for cotton and corn. The settlement had been dubbed Hestertown in the early days, and the name stuck because the families stayed. In 1946, roughly thirty Peters, Malcom, Adcock, and Hester families still lived along Hestertown Road. Some of the young men drove fifty miles each day to work at factories in Atlanta, and other men and women worked at the cotton mills in Monroe -- but they remained in Hestertown and remained tied to the land and the community. On this July evening, some had been gathering vegetables in their gardens, preparing for the evening meal, when they heard the disturbance at the Hester house. Now they walked out from their farms to see if they could help.
Barnette's cousin Grady Malcom had already reached the road when the Hesters' car passed by. "Get Roger," Bob Hester called out the car window, "because Roger stabbed Barnette."
Grady Malcom, in turn, called to his brother, and together the two men, both in their fifties, ran toward the Hesters' house. When they saw Roger Malcom dart into a nearby cornfield, they followed him to the edge and yelled, "Throw down your knife and come out."
From deep in the cornstalks came the muffled sound of Roger Malcom's voice: "Who are you?"
When the brothers shouted their names, Roger Malcom said he wouldn't come out. But then, after a few minutes, he stood, tossed his knife to them, and surrendered.
By the time the brothers took Roger back to the Hesters' front yard, a crowd of neighbors had gathered. One man drove to the closest store to telephone the sheriff. Another man held Roger down while several others bound his hands and feet. Like Barnette, they'd known Roger Malcom for years, and they knew he was a fast runner -- fast as a rabbit, everybody said.
It was nearly dark when Walton County deputy sheriffs Lewis Howard and Doc Sorrells pulled into the yard. They untied Roger Malcom, handcuffed him, put him in the backseat of their patrol car, and drove off in a cloud of dust.
The sheriffs retraced the route Barnette Hester's father had taken one hour earlier, driving roughly a mile to the end of Hestertown Road, and turning onto Pannell Road. Heading northeast, they traveled through the heart of Blasingame district, which lay near the southern point of diamond-shaped Walton County and contained the county's richest farmland. In Blasingame, as in the rest of the county, farmers planted corn, small grains, and timber -- but their livelihood depended almost entirely on cotton. Since the beginning of agriculture in Walton County, cotton had been the major cash crop, comprising roughly 85 percent of the county's total agricultural profits each year. Under the guidance of the local extension agent, farmers planted only certain varieties of cottonseed and used only certain fertilizers, and their care paid off. Year after year, Walton County ranked at the top of Georgia's cotton-producing counties. In 1945, the county's farmers had averaged more than a bale per acre, shattering every cotton record in state history.
By 1946, farmers farther south and west had begun to employ mechanical cotton pickers, which did the work of forty farmhands, more quickly and more cheaply. But the rolling hills of Walton County, which was perched on the midland slope between the flat fields of middle Georgia and the mountains of north Georgia, made mechanical cotton pickers unusable. And so, despite the innovations -- electricity, automobiles, radios -- that had modernized much of rural life in Walton and its surrounding counties, farmers still depended on human labor to pick their cotton. In that respect, the harvest of 1946 would be no different from the harvest of 1846.
Within fifteen minutes of leaving the Hester house, the sheriffs had left the fields of Blasingame behind, passed a small forest known as Towler's Woods, and were entering the outskirts of town. They crossed over the railroad tracks -- where several trains daily made the roughly forty-mile trip between Monroe and Atlanta -- and drove by the town's two cotton mills, hulking brick structures that employed eight hundred white people. At times the mills ran day and night, but it was Sunday evening, and they were still.
A few blocks west, the sheriffs entered Monroe's downtown, a grid of paved streets containing banks, a department store, a hardware store, a pharmacy, and several restaurants. These were the standard establishments found in every county seat or trading center of the day, but Monroe had more to offer than most. It had two public libraries and two public swimming pools -- one for Colored -- as well as a city-owned ice plant, meat locker, and power and light system. Though a small town, with a population just under five thousand, Monroe boasted ten lawyers, fifteen doctors, and more than one hundred teachers. It was known throughout Georgia as a wealthy and progressive community, the first in the state to offer a groundbreaking public health-care program for both white and black citizens. And, as the birthplace of no fewer than six of the state's former chief executives, it had earned the nickname Mother of Governors.
Monroe's prosperity was partly due to the continued success of Walton County's farmers, who drove into town weekly to do their banking and buying. But it was also a result of its location as a midpoint on the highway that connected Atlanta, to the west, with Athens, to the northeast. Since its completion in 1939, the Atlanta-Athens highway had funneled tourists and businessmen through downtown Monroe, where they mingled with locals in the shadow of the town leaders' pride and joy: a stately brick courthouse topped by an elegant four-sided clock tower. Recently, Monroe had also earned bragging rights with its new electric streetlamps, which were aglow as the sheriffs drove through town with Roger Malcom.
Earlier in the day, men, women, and children dressed in their Sunday best had filled the pews of Monroe's thirty-six churches; the town fathers were proud to report that 95 percent of their citizens belonged to a church. After morning services, the streets emptied, and Sunday evenings, as a rule, were quiet. But on this Sunday evening, downtown was bustling. Groups of white men stood on the street corners and clustered around the Confederate memorial on the courthouse square. Some passed out pamphlets, signs, and bumper stickers; others gave impromptu speeches in support of Eugene Talmadge or James Carmichael. These were the two names on most Georgians' tongues that summer, the two lead candidates in the most hotly contested governor's race in state history. It was July 14. The election would take place in just three days.
The sheriffs turned onto Washington Street, drove two blocks north of the courthouse, and parked in back of the two-story cinder-block jail. Deputy Sheriff Lewis Howard, who served as the county jailer, took Roger Malcom from the car and led him into the group cell on the jail's first floor. After locking him in with two white prisoners -- the county jail wasn't segregated by race -- he walked down the hallway leading to the adjoining brick house where he lived with his family and secured the heavy metal door behind him.
Across town late that Sunday night, two doctors left the operating room and met Barnette Hester's father and brothers in a corridor of the Walton County Hospital. They didn't have good news. The blade of Roger Malcom's pocketknife had sliced through the upper region of Barnette's stomach, lacerating his intestine and puncturing his lung. The doctors had washed the protruding section of intestine and reconnected it. Then they'd inserted a tube to drain the fluid in the lung.
The risk of infection was grave, the doctors said. They weren't sure Barnette would live out the week.
1. There have been many unsolved lynchings in American history. In what ways was the Moore’s Ford lynching similar to other lynchings? In what ways was it different or unique? Why did it generate so much national attention?
2. The Moore’s Ford lynching seems to have stemmed, at the outset, from an argument between Barnette Hester and Roger Malcolm. What other circumstances—political, social, historical, economic—contributed to the lynching and the community’s reaction to it?
3. Wexler has described the summer of 1946 as a time of great possibility, great transition, and great unease in the American South, and particularly in Georgia. What do you think she means by this? How did the events of 1946 shift American attitudes about race and civil rights?
4. The author describes many instances in which “good people” refused to come forth with information about the lynching. What evidence does the author give for their reluctance? What were the differences and similarities in the motivations of blacks and whites for withholding information?
5. Wexler unearths many theories and testimonies about what happened on the day of the lynching. Did any of the accounts ring more true than the others? Do you agree that Loy Harrison was in on the plan?
6. Given the horrific nature of the crime and the fact that race is always a contentious and emotional issue, did the author retain objectivity in her storytelling? Should she have? Did your opinion about the community and people involved change over the course of the book? Were you able to identify some people as heroes and others as villains?
7. After the lynching, according to the author’s account, souvenir collectors swept the site clean. More recently, a popular exhibit of lynching photographs toured the country. Why do you think this atrocity still holds so much fascination? What different motives might drive this apparent desire to possess (or view) physical and photographic documentation of such a traumatic, violent event?
8. The FBI conducted an extensive investigation into the lynching but was still unable to convict anyone. What were some of the obstacles they came up against? Do you feel they missed any opportunities?
9. Throughout the book, Wexler untangles the complicated and sometimes surprising relationships between blacks and whites during the postwar era. What are some examples of this? For instance, were you surprised by Barnette Hester’s desire that no retribution be taken on Roger Malcolm?
10. Were you surprised by how progressive (the NAACP, President Truman’s reaction, etc.) or regressive Americans seemed to be in the wake of World War II? Do you have any personal memories—or shared family memories—of life during that time? How does Wexler’s portrayal jibe with those memories?
11. Does the history of lynching still hold sway over the American psyche? How? Can you think of any recent events that seem to conjure that history? Do you think that the South has been able to reconcile this legacy?
12. The Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee formed with the intention of healing the community a half century after the lynchings. Do you feel it was important to commemorate the lynching in the way they have? If not, what do you feel might be better? Do you believe that there can be healing in the absence of justice?
13. Was the resolution of this historical mystery satisfying? What are your thoughts on the author’s assertion that finding closure in an event like this is impossible?